Katie Presley

The video for "Sorry" by San Francisco's The She's is the stuff dreams are made of. A beautiful duo frolics on the beach, the sun is shining, the sparks are flying, a sweet series of kisses are shared in the surf, and, as in so many dreams, the whole thing is tinged with a creeping sense of existential dread.

It's only sexy to be sick sometimes. Or more precisely, only some types of sickness are sexy. Passionate fevers. Tragic, romantic consumption. Artistic mania. Poetic depression. The spectrum of socially acceptable mental illnesses is about as wide as a pinky finger — paranoia and anxiety aren't even on the same hand.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

I recommend two ways of listening to Tanya Tagaq's latest record, Retribution. One is with eyes closed, given over wholly to the experience of a dense, immersive collection of sounds unlike any sounds on any other albums in your collection. The other is with eyes open, standing in front of a mirror, with one hand on your throat. The former is to better appreciate this record as a shockingly inventive achievement in music production. The latter is to better appreciate the marvel of the human body.

If Jenny Hval's music is the bramble, her message is the Disney castle nestled (or, depending on perspective, trapped) inside. The experimental singer-songwriter surrounds her vulnerable voice and razor's edge lyrics with spiky, disarming instrumentation and production that work to both belie and bolster the intensity and intimacy of her work. Blood Bitch, Hval's sixth album, is her first that offers a sword for cutting through the thorns.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Their titles may be diametrically opposed, but Chris Pureka's new single, "Back in the Ring," and Rufus Wainwright's 2012 sensation, "Out of the Game," are spiritual cousins. Each composition acts as a compassionate but fraught memorial to how things were, and a clear-eyed acceptance of how things are.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Calliope Musicals frontwoman Carrie Fussell says she envisioned "Party Master & the Space Brigade" as a light-hearted dance number about how aliens are just like us. And it was — until the Austin band brought their freewheeling live show to Bisbee, Arizona, where a performance of the song got them some stern advice. "I think it's very sweet that you are so positive about the aliens," a concerned concert-goer told Fussell, "but they are not all good!

The cover art of Newcastle indie-rock quartet Lanterns on the Lake's new album, Beings, is at once soothing and unnerving. Warm, filtered light bathes an arid mountain-scape, and whimsical will-o-the-wisps bubble around the edges of the image. Yet, in the middle of the photograph, there sits an unadorned black heptagon, like a scorch mark. It's a striking image, perfectly paired to the music it illustrates.

All of Marisa Anderson's music has travelled thousands of miles. This is literally true — the Portland, Ore. guitarist spent her late teens and twenties walking across the United States — and it's one of her gifts as a musician. She revels in the journey, in the process that of getting from point A to point B.

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Every moment of The Coathangers' "Watch Your Back" seems designed to knock you off your feet. Five seconds in, the opening, bouyant guitar line jolts, giving way to a breathless punk beat that's three parts steamroller and one part percussion. Brash schoolyard vocals tear in and then drop out, replaced by a dark, relentless reminder that "you can never go back." And before that switch-off can also become predictable, everything slams together into an overlapping mix.

A song titled "Nothing Without You" has a steep hill to climb toward independence. Before hearing a word, the artist has admitted to being hamstrung by addiction, and an inability to form a sense of self separate from the desideratum. It's a risky impression to make—especially if you're an up-and-coming, all-female band early in your career.

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Gwenno Saunders is a broken woman in her latest video, "Patriarchaeth," but not in the ways you'd expect. The Pipettes singer and keyboardist, who performs electropop solo work under her first name, used digital and manual techniques to create the video with English artist Ian Watson. Gwenno told NPR

Saying an artist's music is "gaining velocity" usually means it's exploding in popularity; finding a larger (and growing) audience. For the songs of Twin Cities musician Haley Bonar, though, it's literally true. Her musical projects, first solo and now with her band Gramma's Boyfriend, have been increasing in tempo and kick for the duration of her decade-long career.

Bakers know to cut their sweetest confections with salt, to give dimension to that sugary taste. Painters and photographers use shadow to give shape to light. And on her latest single, "Still Your Girl" (from her newest EP, Arrows), the Michigan-born, Nashville-bred singer-songwriter Fleurie (born Lauren Strahm) uses heavy, jarring electronica to turn an airy pop song into something dark and downright luscious.

The best part of being in a band, says singer/songwriter Jendayi Bonds, is watching a song come to life. The same can be said of watching her band, pop duo Charlie Belle, start on the steep ascent to stardom.

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